How much is your intellectual property worth? Surprisingly, quite a bit. In the engineering field, a lot of invention occurs in research facilities by the employees or students of that university. The intellectual property of a student usually becomes the property of the university that the invention or idea was crafted in. However, there are engineers out there that are continually innovating and creating intellectual property that can be patented or copyrighted etc. Therefore, engineering mentors are encouraging students of engineering faculties to become more accustomed to patent, copyright, trade secret and trademark laws so that they cover themselves sufficiently and can publish their ideas and products to the public. 

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Credit: SABC

Nkosana Makate has been embroiled in a fifteen year battle with South African telecommunications company and cell phone service provider, Vodacom. Makate was an employee of the company when he invented the 'Please Call Me'. It utilized the USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) technology within GSM communication technology to send a free communication to another cell phone, that would alert a user, that their friend/colleague had no funds/airtime to call them, thereby hoping that the caller who did have funds/airtime would call them back. 

Makate then claimed he had the idea for the 'Please Call Me' and had said Vodacom vowed - in a verbal agreement - to pay him for the idea in the year 2000. He never saw the money. The invention of 'Please Call Me' allegedly made Vodacom over $4 billion of revenue, of which not a single cent was paid to Makate. He took Vodacom to three different courts which dismissed the claims that he should be paid for the idea, resulting in Makate taking the battle to the Constitutional Court of South Africa. 

The Constitutional Court then ruled that Makate would have to be paid for the idea. 

Justice Chris Jafta of the Constitutional Court said: "Having admitted that it had used Mr. Makate's idea to develop the 'please call me' service, it was not ethical for Vodacom to refuse to compensate him. What compounds the matter is the fact that Vodacom entered into a contract with him, under which it now sought to avoid liability by raising technical defenses." 

The agreement that Makate wants to settle on is 15% of the calculated revenues the 'Please Call Me' service made in its 15 years of operation. When asked about the advice he would give to other people who would be selling their ideas to big corporations, Makate said: "Based on the experience that I've had, people need to protect their ideas and they need to make sure they get lawyers for advice and other people who are skilled and knowledgeable in business to actually take them through the process."

EIT Stock ImageSo the question to be asked is: What should engineers know about intellectual property before entering the workplace? You could be sitting on a goldmine idea within a company that could make that company millions or even billions. 

Industry expert, Robert J. Sinnema, Vice President & Counsel of intellectual Property at Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation said engineers should file for a patent as soon as possible before any use of the idea. In the United States, a patent should be filed within one year of the use of the product or idea. He describes getting a patent as having a twenty-year monopoly on a certain idea. 

"You may be horrified about the value you've got with your intellectual property. You need to look after it and protect it from your friends across the river who may be keen to steal it or use it in their commercial undertakings," says Steve Mackay, the Dean of Engineering at the Engineering Institute of Technology. 

Mackay highlights three forms of intellectual properties in his YouTube series, the Engineering News Network. In the 28th episode he cautions engineers to protect their ideas through the following methods: 

  • Patents - 20 years protection. It gives you protection no one else can get once you've been granted it, but you have to do it internationally. The other issue is, once you've defined the patent, you may find that your friends who don't care about patents or any IP now have a defined product they can now go and copy. Mackay also says it is mostly iron clad. 
  • Copyright: A drawing or a design. You can typically get 95 years protection for a corporation and then for individual its the lifetime of the individual plus seventy years. The other good thing is, in countries like Australia you don't even have to register it, however, in the United States you do. 

At Iowa State University, Attorney Rich Beem speaks of copyright saying: "Copyright makes it illegal to copy but not illegal to design around. If you have a Windows program on a CD and you install the Windows program on another computer you've just become guilty of copyright infringement. What a patent can do that a copyright cannot, is, protect the process or the method claimed for the inventive software."

Rich concludes by saying if the intention of an engineer is to make money on the idea, then patents is what they want. He says, "The best practice if you're going to publish is to file a patent application first and then publish and commercialize." 


The Engineering Institute of Technology (EIT) is dedicated to ensuring our students receive a world-class education and gain skills they can immediately implement in the workplace upon graduation. Our staff members uphold our ethos of honesty and integrity, and we stand by our word because it is our bond. Our students are also expected to carry this attitude throughout their time at our institute, and into their careers.